August 18, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Assad’s Atrocities Continue
Even in a conflict marked by the deliberate killing of civilians, the August 16 airstrikes in the Damascus suburb of Douma stand out. The Syrian air force fired between 3-9 missiles at a market, killing an estimated 100 people and wounding several hundred more. The attack came during a visit to Syria by the United Nations’ top humanitarian official, Stephen O’Brien—a sign of how seriously the Assad regime views the UN’s ability to influence its actions. The UN called the latest massacre ‘devastating’ and ‘unacceptable’—as it has after each of the dozens of regime-perpetrated massacres in the last four years, and as it will after the next.
The Douma market was attacked again by Syrian rockets on August 17, and previously on August 12, in an attack that killed at least 27 people. This deliberate targeting of the most crowded market area in a rebel-held town is consistent with the Assad regime’s strategy throughout the civil war: the regime protects its supporters in Damascus and Latikia and a dwindling number of other cities, and targets the rest.
There are no locales in rebel-held territory that the Assad regime considers off-limits. Earlier this month, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) accused the Assad regime of deliberately attacking three of its hospitals in Idlib, and six smaller clinics in western Syria. Not only do these attacks kill the most vulnerable of civilians, but they also kill badly needed medical workers in a country overflowing with casualties, and destroy hospitals and equipment not easily replaced even in the best of times.
In addition to the direct and dreadful costs in terms of lives lost and families destroyed, the Assad regime’s repeated atrocities have helped further radicalize a conflict that is already extreme by any measure. Groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian iteration, and, of course the so-called Islamic State, tap into the understandable rage and harness it to commit their own atrocities, ensuring a cycle of ever-increasing barbarism.
While much is made of the vaunted propaganda of the Islamic State, there is nothing the group could produce that will draw as many supporters or recruits as Assad's atrocities. The regime is a terrorism generator of epic proportion, engaging in state terrorism against its own people and inciting terrorism from its opponents. There is no justifying the actions of a group like the Islamic State or al-Nusra—whose ideology of bin Ladinism propels their supporters to savagery—but the Assad regime’s wholesale slaughter of civilians provides the groups with radicalized supporters far faster than Assad’s military can then fight them.
Despite the ever-tightening noose of rebel gains across the country, the Assad regime’s control of the Syrian skies enables it to survive while ensuring the civilians in the territory the regime has lost do not. Air power is Assad's greatest military asset, in that it allows the regime to project power far greater than anything the rebels can muster. Assad's Russian-supplied air defense is a major reason western nations are resistant to carving out and maintaining a no-fly zone—a major military escalation. Whether the Douma massacre will lead to a rethinking of the no-fly zone is unclear.
What is clear is that the Syrian military will continue to use helicopters and fighter jets against civilians. The much-reviled barrel bombs continue to fall on Syrian neighborhoods in spite of increased international condemnation. The Assad regime has never responded to outrage nor will it ever, as it sees itself in a life-or-death struggle against the rebels. As the regime continues to sustain losses on battlefields in the west and south, it will almost certainly increase its attacks on civilians, whose suffering remains the one constant in the shifting fortunes of the war.
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